How Eddie Van Halen revolutionized rock guitar

by Greg Prato

While speaking to a wide variety of rock guitarists for my 2017 book, Shredders!: The Oral History Of Speed Guitar (And More), the vast majority of those interviewed seemed to all agree on the same thing – you could pinpoint two main "shifts" in the history of rock guitar. And those could be attributed to Jimi Hendrix and... Eddie Van Halen.

When Jimi hit the scene in the late '60s, suddenly, guitarists were no longer afraid to crank their Marshalls, utilize feedback, and step on effects pedals. And when Eddie hit in the late '70s, seemingly every rock guitarist was instantly two-hand tapping, doing dive-bombs on their Floyd Rose tremolo system, and assembling their own "Frankenstein guitar."

When news broke on October 6, 2020 that Van Halen had passed at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer, I thought back to all the praise bestowed upon him by the guitarists I interviewed for the aforementioned book – and that the excerpt below would serve as a fitting tribute to this guitar legend. Rest in peace, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen.
Adrian Belew (Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, King Crimson guitarist; solo artist): I saw Eddie Van Halen right before Van Halen made it big. I was still rehearsing with Frank [Zappa] in LA, and one night, I went to the Whisky A Go-Go, and Van Halen was playing there. And I was already doing what they call right-handed fretting, where you put your finger on the neck with your right hand and do trills and things. I was already doing that, and I didn't know that anyone else in the world was doing it. So when I saw him do it, it kind of astounded me - that he was doing it better than I was.

Jas Obrecht (Guitar Player editor, 1978–1999): When I first saw Eddie Van Halen play in 1978, I thought that if musicians were rated like light bulbs, this guy would be 160 watts. His playing was incandescent. Onstage and [on] record, he was uninhibited and absolutely fearless. He not only played brilliant rhythm parts and wonderfully melodic solos, he expanded the boundaries of rock guitar in a way no one had done since Jimi Hendrix. His playing, especially on the instrumental, "Eruption," upped the game for everyone.

The technique of tapping the fingerboard had been around for decades, but it was sparsely practiced, and almost always as a novelty. Eddie brought finger tapping into mainstream rock'n'roll. He spread the gospel of tapping even further with his solo on Michael Jackson's "Beat It," which was heard by millions of people around the world. And credit where credit is due: the distinctive rhythm guitar on that song was played by Steve Lukather.

Eddie did all this with a Strat-style guitar that he'd "slapped together" himself from various parts, and decorated with black electrician's tape and Schwinn bicycle paint. His outfitting the guitar with a single humbucking P-90 pickup helped him create a unique sound on his early albums.

His impact was enormous. Within six months of the release of the first Van Halen album, young guitarists all across the country and in Europe - and especially Japan - were sporting copycat guitars and playing pale versions of "Eruption." But no one surpassed the original, because the real genius of Eddie Van Halen has always been in his hands and his imagination. I saw this myself one day in 1980, when Eddie showed me how he plays "Eruption." He did this with an unplugged Strat, and you know what? The whole song was there.

Billy Sheehan (Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, The Winery Dogs bassist; solo artist): We had sat down a couple of times and he showed me some cool stuff. He's a wonderful guy and very generous with his knowledge. Touring with them in 1980 [when Billy was in Talas] was a great revelation - in many ways. Our first meeting with Eddie, Talas was in a dressing room - on the first night of the first show. The room was an L-shaped room, so I was sitting at one part where I could see the door. No one else in the room could see the door. The door opened and Ed walked in. I remember later on, the guys said, "You should have seen the look on your face," because here comes Ed, he walks in, and goes, "Which one of you guys is Billy Sheehan?"

I gathered where he had heard of me from - from Denny Carmassi, because I did a thing with Denny Carmassi and Michael Schenker. So we shook hands and talked a little bit, and we watched the band from the side of the stage a few times.

They were really nice to us - they let us do encores and all that stuff. And at the end of the tour, Ed gave me his phone number, and said, "I'm going to give you my phone number ... but don't tell Michael I gave it to you." And I thought, "Oh. That's intriguing."

So time went on, and sure enough, I saw him on the next tour. They played a show in Buffalo and he said, "Come up to the hotel room, I've got some music to play you." The guys in Talas were actually sitting downstairs at a table with David Lee Roth, and I went upstairs to Ed's room, and we're talking. He says, "What would you do if I asked you to join Van Halen?" And I said, "I'd say, What plane do you want me on?" And we shook hands, and I thought, "Did I just get asked to join Van Halen?" Sure enough, I went to another show of theirs, and Dave was there walking past, and he said, "Hey, I heard that you had a little talk with Ed. I guess we'll see you when the tour is done and we'll see what happens." I said, "Wow. Great!" And that was that.

Unfortunately, it fell through at the time. They said, "We didn't want to make a change," and I'm glad they did, because I like Michael, and as much as I wanted to be in Van Halen, I felt terrible about popping him out of his gig. And as a fan, I hate to see when bands change. But yeah, they did ask me. And then another time it came again - it was before Dave got back in the band just recently. I went up to Ed and Al's studio - it's not far from my house. We jammed for a while and thought about doing something again. It's been an ongoing thing, and like I said, it was a great honor that they even thought of me. It didn't work out, but that's OK.

Bruce Kulick (Kiss, Union, Grand Funk Railroad guitarist; solo artist): For me, the Sammy Hagar version of Van Halen really gave the band an opportunity to stretch out in ways I don't think they ever could have done with David Lee Roth. I'm actually a fan of both versions of the band, but where I'll hear many people just want to know about the David Lee Roth era, I don't agree with that. In fact, in some ways, I think some of the stuff they accomplished with Sammy gave more facets of styles of music and let them explore more musical territory. I don't think Eddie's playing changed, it just put him now in another landscape, that was even bigger and broader. But again, I don't want to take away from what they did initially, because his guitar was huge, the songs were amazing - I still get off on hearing "Panama."

But when I think of some of the material that I love from the Hagar version of Van Halen, you had a singer who could really reach high notes - and powerfully. Sammy is just an incredible singer. I had a chance to jam with him at the Fantasy Camp, and I've got so much respect for him. But I thought that the songwriting was able then to be more mature. It wasn't always tongue-in-cheek, even though they'd have fun with some songs. The element of keyboards - which I had no problem with, even though some people may have thought it was crazy - obviously, they experimented with "Jump" already, but I think they developed incorporating that in their sound much more so during the Sammy Hagar time.

But Eddie's guitar was huge, the playing was great, the songwriting was terrific, there's so many amazing songs. I thought they sounded incredible. There was no downside. Some bands, you change the singer, the whole dynamic gets ruined. And here, it became a whole other animal, that was pretty incredible. I remember seeing them live - going with Eric Carr to see them - and backstage after the show, they're sitting there eating lobster and steak. [Laughs] They were always very cool with us. I have a lot of respect for those guys.

Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins singer-guitarist; solo artist): Van Halen ushered in this virtuosity - that the virtuosity on the guitar can be "pop."

Ty Tabor (King's X guitarist; solo artist): When I heard Eddie Van Halen, my jaw hit the ground. I just thought, "I might as well quit. This is the most amazing thing I've ever heard." And different from what other people were playing at the time. The same thing happened when I heard Satriani and several really great players in the '80s. But it was a different kind of thing. It was like, technical excellence with heart. And I had not heard those two put together in a long time.

In the '70s, you had guys that played from the heart, but weren't necessarily technically awesome. And then you had technical players who were from the other side of the brain, and just left me totally cold. Well, the '80s brought the first group of guitarists I remember that put those two together. Eddie Van Halen is a good example of it - he was technically amazing, and yet he played from the heart. Yngwie, as much as I totally recognize his impact and influence, I personally wasn't really listening to him at all back then. But Eddie Van Halen, for sure. I mean, you couldn't get away from it.

October 7, 2020
Concert photos by Bill O'Leary (see more here), from his book, Timeless Concert Images
Get Shredders!: The Oral History Of Speed Guitar (And More), at Amazon
Van Halen Songfacts entries

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • Van Halen Forever from TexasI picked up an issue of Guitar Player Magazine dated late 70’s and there on the front cover was a guitar player musical prodigy...Edward Van Halen. That stayed imprinted in my mind for years. To finally see him in concert in Austin Tx, in the 80’s, he truly performed as the icon that he was.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Peter Lord

Peter LordSongwriter Interviews

You may not recognize his name, but you will certainly recognize Peter Lord's songs. He wrote the bevy of hits from Paula Abdul's second album, Spellbound.

La La Brooks of The Crystals

La La Brooks of The CrystalsSong Writing

The lead singer on "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me," La La explains how and why Phil Spector replaced The Crystals with Darlene Love on "He's A Rebel."

Divided Souls: Musical Alter Egos

Divided Souls: Musical Alter EgosSong Writing

Long before Eminem, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj created alternate personas, David Bowie, Bono, Joni Mitchell and even Hank Williams took on characters.

Sugarland

SugarlandSongwriter Interviews

Meet the "sassy basket" with the biggest voice in country music.

Dexys (Kevin Rowland and Jim Paterson)

Dexys (Kevin Rowland and Jim Paterson)Songwriter Interviews

"Come On Eileen" was a colossal '80s hit, but the band - far more appreciated in their native UK than stateside - released just three albums before their split. Now, Dexys is back.

Dave Alvin - "4th Of July"

Dave Alvin - "4th Of July"They're Playing My Song

When Dave recorded the first version of the song with his group the Blasters, producer Nick Lowe gave him some life-changing advice.